The word stillbirth is used to describe the loss of a pregnancy after the 20th week of pregnancy due to natural causes. According to a national statistic, stillbirths occur in nearly one in 200 pregnancies in the United States every year. To better understand stillbirths, and grief process involved, I have the honor of interviewing Ann Faison, author of “Dancing With the Midwives: A Memoir of Art and Grief.”
1. Most people don’t want to talk about still birth and yet you seem to have no problem with it. Why is that?
Ann: Often people choose to be private about the loss of a baby. There is a belief that talking about it will bring more pain, or prolong it when you should be “moving on.” For some there may be feelings of shame and guilt which are hard to face.
Because my mother died when I was young, I knew from experience that there was no advantage to avoiding grief. I dove into it and tried to express as much of it as I could, which is what became the book, Dancing with the Midwives. The act of creating, in my case writing and drawing, was the best thing I could do for myself.
Acknowledging the grief includes talking about it. My book is intended to inspire people to do that. To express it in a positive way.
2. You have talked about the negative effects of suppressing or repressing grief. What are they?
Ann: When my mother died we did not talk openly about our grief. That was simply the culture of the family I grew up in. I ended up with a severe eating disorder at sixteen followed by low self-esteem and depression that lasted through my twenties and mid-thirties. I can’t blame everything on suppressed grief. Yet I was able to break free from depression once I acknowledged the grief that was still there and started working with it, instead of pretending it was over.
When a baby dies, the impulse to silence and censor ourselves is strong. Many families are afraid that grieving openly will damage the other children. In fact, the opposite is true.
3. What was the lowest point in your grieving process?
Ann: In the first few weeks after her birth I had my lowest lows and some of my highest highs. The highs were like a spiritual euphoria that convinced me I had the keys to understanding the meaning of life. I had the answer! (I only wish I could remember it now…) The lows put me at the bottom of a dark pit. I remember being afraid that there was no bottom to the pit and I would only get worse. But I didn’t and those feelings passed, especially when I was patient. When the sadness became more manageable I started to feel reluctant about getting better because the grief was my connection to the baby. I had the feeling that as I began to feel better, I was moving farther away from her.
4. How did your family react to the still birth?
Ann: I was concerned about my 2 1/2 year old daughter Grace, so I paid close attention to her behavior, and talked to her as openly as possible. The conversations I had with Grace about what happened showed me that she was fine and grieving her own way, on her own level, at her own pace. I liked talking to Grace about her sister because Grace was curious and wanted me to explain why she died, which of course I couldn’t. I had to tell her I didn’t have all the answers, which was comforting in a way.
We were all expecting a new baby to join our family and coping with the hole that she left. We had little ceremonies every month as a way to share our feelings and continue to acknowledge the baby, who we named Keirnan. Sometimes the ceremonies would feel awkward or forced, but for the most part I think they helped us feel more grounded, which we needed.
5. Did you and your husband have similar reactions to the still birth? How did it affect your marriage?
Ann: Since I was going through the hormonal changes associated with childbirth, and because she had dwelled in my body, it was by definition different for each of us. At times it was a challenge to understand what the other person was going through. One of us might want to be close when the other needed space. We had to negotiate things like that and be as understanding and forgiving as possible.
It was hard. Grieving made us both very vulnerable, and if we’d had very different feelings about it, our relationship might not have survived as well as it did. In our case, the experience strengthened our bond.